Mess with Thanksgiving at your peril.
The traditional meal, anchored by a roast turkey, has been woven into the fabric of our American identity. And it’s not just because, as kids, that’s what we ate. As kids, we also made turkeys by tracing our hands and Pilgrim hats out of black construction paper as we learned about how the settlers and Indians managed to set aside hostilities long enough to break bread together.
It’s not just a meal, it’s a mythology.
That’s why the Thanksgiving dinner my family sits down to has looked essentially the same for the fifty years it’s been in existence. Before I was born, my mother made the fateful decision that we’d have bread stuffing and, by god, that’s what we’ve had every year since.
This is what she says in Dreaded Broccoli, the book we wrote together a while back:
There are stuffings other than bread stuffings, but not in my family. … If your family has its own traditional nonbread stuffing, however, I suggest you not switch to mine. You may think your daughter is a wild-eyed radical, but just try changing your turkey stuffing and she’ll turn into Anita Bryant before your eyes.
And so it’s been. There have been changes to the side dishes, but they’re bit players. As long as there’s a roast turkey with bread stuffing (cooked inside the bird, thank you very much), it’s Thanksgiving.
Kevin and I messed with it this year, at our peril.
We didn’t mess with it a lot. We decided that, instead of roasting the turkey, we’d smoke and deep-fry it. We’d had a lot of success with cooking our ducks that way, and we wanted to see if the process would scale up, which is why Thanksgiving morning found Kevin stoking the smokehouse firebox with oak as I rolled out pie crusts in the kitchen.
Once the fire settled into a steady burn, Kevin put two of our turkeys in – one for us, one for the post-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving that our friends Dianne and Doug host on Sunday night. We kept the temperature within shouting distance of 250 degrees and smoked the birds for four hours.
The rest of the meal, we kept more or less traditional, and tried to use as many first-hand ingredients as we could.
It started with a smoked bluefish pate and a duck liver mousse with marjoram. From there, we had oysters enlivened with a lime granita spiced with habanero and jalapeno peppers. Our appetizer was a winter squash soup with tarragon and our sea salt. With the turkey and the gravy I made from giblet stock, we served that not-to-be-messed-with bread stuffing (with onion, shiitakes, parsley, chives, and sage), although we had to bake it in a casserole dish. Our friends Jon and Susan have a cranberry bog, and it was their cranberries that made our sauce. I creamed our collard greens.
For dessert, there were pecan and pumpkin pies with our eggs and maple syrup from our friend Dave, who taps the trees on his property in Vermont. We finished with dandelion wine.
I counted, and that was twenty ingredients that we managed to grow, gather, or glean from the world around us.
But how was it?
The turkey came out beautifully and, with the exception of the collards, which were bitter (is there anything you can do about that?), the appetizers and side dishes were good. The pies, I will admit, were excellent. (I am a slapdash, careless cook, and the only explanation for my ability to turn out beautiful, precise pies is that, somewhere along the line, I sold my soul to the devil. I have often wished that I’d held out for something better than a gift for pie crust.)
Dinner was good. But it wasn’t great.
Last year, the first time we raised turkeys, we roasted our bird the old-fashioned way and I am prepared to admit that last year’s dinner was better than this year’s. Could it be simply because an oven-roasted turkey yields in-the-bird stuffing and from-the-pan gravy? Or did we disrupt the balance of the meal by cooking the turkey in a non-traditional way and leaving the rest of the meal as-is?
I’m thinking it’s B. If you’re going to shake it up, you have to shake it all up. If you jettison the roasted turkey, the stuffing and gravy just have to go with it. Next year, it’s out with the old. Although we’ll probably stick with turkey because we’ve had good luck with raising our own birds, the rest of it is up for grabs. Maybe we’ll try a barbecue Thanksgiving, with baked beans and cole slaw. Or maybe, just maybe, if hell freezes over and we get our wood-fired oven built, we’ll do a wood-fired Thanksgiving.
The bird won’t look the same. The sides won’t look the same. The table won’t look the same. If the pies look the same, I’m okay with that.
The deficiencies of this year’s meal didn’t, I’m happy to say, meaningfully interfere with the general excellence of the day. My parents and Kevin’s kids were here to share it with us, and it felt very good to be feeding our family with such personal food.
I also count Thanksgiving among the few holidays whose spirit I can get behind. To spend a day, once a year, thinking about that for which I am grateful, does me good.